"It's easy to tear a team down, but hard to build it back up." That's a phrase that Buffalo Sabres fans have heard many times over the past few years, serving as a cautionary tale of the perils of Edmonton as opposed to the riches of Pittsburgh and Chicago that Buffalo fans dream about.
Other phrases like "culture of losing" and "learning to win" have been bandied about in recent months, as the Sabres went from a team some thought could challenge for a wild card spot to a team that, while showing many signs of improvement, wasn't ready to take that next step just yet.
Yes, those phrases may be cliches, but cliches become so for a reason. Whether or not you believe in any of those phrases above, you'll want to pay close attention to the Sabres final thirteen games, which feature a number of easy, should-be-winnable matchups against the bottom of the league.
Buffalo's next six games - and nine of the remaining thirteen - are against teams currently not in a playoff position. For a team that saw their season start with what seemed like every other game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, it's a nice chance for the Sabres to play some other teams more on their current level. It's a chance for Jack Eichel to get his feet wet as the team's #1 center, and for Robin Lehner to continue to cement his position as a bona fide #1 goaltender, among other things.
The Sabres have a chance to learn how to win, as silly as that sounds to say, or type. Maybe a better way to put it is that this is a very young, inexperienced team that needs to collectively understand what it takes to control teams that are beneath them, compete with teams similar to them, and challenge teams that are above them, for a full sixty minutes, every night.
Because if we ever want the Sabres to be a championship caliber team, that's what they have to do, and it's something we haven't seen in years. They have to learn to play with as much energy, precision, and intelligence as the best in the NHL on a nightly basis. Does this mean Chicago never loses to Columbus, or that the Kings don't sweat when down a goal in the third period versus the Flames? Of course not, but those teams understand what it takes not just to compete against their opponents, but to beat them on a consistent basis.
The Sabres have thirteen games left. In their previous two games, against New York and Montreal, we've seen flashes of the team that Buffalo can someday become. But flashes don't hold up for three full periods, and the Sabres ultimately lost both those games. What the leaders and coaches on this team need to do over their final thirteen games is turn those flashes into stretches, those stretches into periods, and those periods into games.
If they can learn to do that, then next year those four games against Tampa won't seem quite so scary.